Saturday, August 25, 2012

Killer Joe

A Twisted & Sickly Amusing Story        
by Mark Dispenza

Freaky Friedkin is at it again in a darkly comic, perverse and sickly entertaining romp through the underbelly of Texas.

Adapted by Tracy Letts from his own off-Broadway play, Killer Joe is his follow-up feature with director William Friedkin after teaming on Bug in 2006.  Friedkin has never been one to shy away from edgy material, as he so aptly proved with his early films, The French Connection and The Exorcist.  If anything age has made him even bolder.

Killer Joe is billed as "a totally twisted, deep-fried, Texas redneck, trailer park murder story," and all of that is true, although it doesn't even begin to describe how deeply the story delves into the underside of humanity.  There are absolutely no redeeming characters here.  These people are marginal, undisciplined, self-centered, incestuous and basically "dumb as a doorknob," except for "Killer Joe," played by Matthew McConaughey, who brings a base level of street smarts and predatory cunning into the mix.

The dysfunctional family of Emile Hirsch, Gina Gershon, 
Thomas Haden Church and Juno Temple

A family of trailer park Texas rednecks learns that there is a sizable life insurance policy on their mother and ex-wife of father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church).  Egged on by son, Chris (Emile Hirsch), the two team up with Ansel's new wife, Sharla (Gina Gershon), to devise a plan to murder the despised woman and get access to the life insurance proceeds.  They hire a dirty cop, the afore-mentioned Killer Joe, to carry out the hit.

Of course, when Joe delivers his end of the bargain, the family discover that, being enormously stupid to begin with, they have really screwed up the whole scenario and can't come up with the money to pay him. Joe gives them a deadline to deliver, or in lieu of killing them all, he will take beautiful daughter, Dottie (Juno Temple) as payment.

Zac and I both saw this film at festival screenings prior to this week's wide release, and being the sensible lad he is, Zac hated it with a passion.  God strike me dead with a well-aimed thunderbolt, I can't honestly agree. This is low-brow entertainment executed as high art.  It worked for me and I laughed throughout.  I don't know what twisted place in his tortured soul compelled Letts to write this story or Friedkin to direct it, but they teamed up with an exceptional cast to pull it off flawlessly.

Matthew McConaughey

Friedkin was engaged in an ultimately unsuccessful fight to reduce the film's NC-17 rating, and that helped delay the release date.  That rating was likely inspired by an infamous scene involving Sharla and a somewhat violent sexual act with a fried chicken drumstick.  Gershon will probably win some kind of award for that scene, but trust me, it won't be an Oscar.

If you see this film and find it offensive, please don't complain to me.  The disclaimers are all over the place, both in this post and on the film's own poster and advertising.  On the other hand, if you find some measure of amusement in the bumbling foibles of humanity, you're going to be in for a treat.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Farewell, My Queen

Seduced by Power                               
by Mark Dispenza

The seductive, yet illusive nature of power is at the heart of Benoit Jacquot's historical drama about the first days of the French Revolution.  Farewell, My Queen chronicles those events through the eyes of Sidonie Laborde, the fictional reader to Marie Antoinette.

The story begins with business as usual in the queen's court at the Palace of Versailles.   It is an opulent life for French royals, with hundreds of servants at their beck and call.  With so much wealth at their disposal, most of their concerns are trivial and centered on the juiciest of gossip about their contemporaries.  But a dark cloud soon descends, as news of the storming of the Bastille reaches Versailles and the royals begin to realize that their days are numbered, especially when a pamphlet listing many of them on a revolutionary death list is circulated.

Jacquot cleverly avoids showing scenes outside the walls of Versailles, so that the audience viewpoint is the same as that of the characters. The palace becomes permeated with a sense of impending doom.  They don't really know what is going on or how dire their situation is, and news of the outside world quickly becomes a commodity of trade.

Sidonie is played with just the right mix of naive superiority, self-absorption and vulnerability by Lea Seydoux. Her youthful beauty and charm are strengths that give her access to men in the know, and with that knowledge she does her best to boost her profile in the eyes of the queen, for Sidonie has become obsessed with pleasing Marie Antoinette, and her self-image now depends on the queen's approval.

Diane Kruger

What sets this film apart, other than the beauty of its elaborate production design, is its characterization of the queen herself.  Marie Antoinette is often depicted in film as a caricature, in keeping with the image of her that was promulgated by the victors following the revolution.

The Marie Antoinette played brilliantly by Diane Kruger is both captivating and complex.  She may be somewhat of a diva, certain of her special place above all other people, but she is also human, skilled in many ways, bolstered by cunning charm, vulnerable and filled with longing for what she cannot have - particularly the love of the Duchess Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), whose favor with the queen ultimately became a liability that helped fan the fires of revolution and lead to the queen's demise.  

It is easy to see how Sidonie could become a willing participant in her own seduction, infused with the desire to believe that she is special and unique in the eyes of someone so beautiful, privileged and powerful.  Of course, she is doomed to be disappointed.  Her value lies more in what she can do for the queen in the moment, and not from her own special qualities.

That lesson is foreshadowed after one of the queen's highest ranking servants is dismissed for stealing from her, something many in the court did when they realized the end would soon be upon them.  Sidonie had often seen the woman engaged in banter with the queen's head servant, Mme. Campan (Noemie Lvovsky).  Sidonie tells Mme. Campan that she is sorry about the loss of her friend.  The woman looks at her in honest surprise and tells her "I have no friends at Versailles."

Diane Kruger and Lea Seydoux

Farewell, My Queen is bolstered by elaborate and beautiful costuming and production design and a mesmerizing cast.  In French with English subtitles, it is currently in limited release in the USA.

Side by Side


The Old vs. The New                     
by Zac Sanford

For over ten years the industry has bemoaned the end of celluloid..  Those who are for the photochemical process of filmmaking point out the shortcomings of the newer technology.  The filmmakers and DPs who have already jumped on board will spout off the countless benefits to the digital process.

In Side by Side both positions of the argument are given their fare share of screen time.  And before the casual viewer scoffs at a film about the filmmaking process and the merits of the changing technology, don't let the film's subject matter scare you off.  How can you be afraid of such a subject when the person conducting the interviews is none other than Keanu Reeves.  Yes, Bill of Bill and Ted sits back and lobs softball questions at such luminary directors and below-the-line talent that any layman can grasp the discussion at hand.

The documentary has such heavyweights as Steven Soderbergh, Robert Rodriguez, George Lucas, Danny Boyle and James Cameron, who have all been on board with the digital revolution for over a decade.  On the other side of the argument, Christopher Nolan is probably the most vocal about the downfall of cinema and is backed up by the always entertaining Wally Pfister.  Countless other Directors and cinematographers go into deep detail of the digital age, from the first CCD camera developed by Bell Labs in the 60s to the latest in technology from Red and Arri.

But the documentary doesn't just cover the film production, but delves deeper into the digital revolution, helping filmmakers from pre-production through post.  The talking heads continue through an array of special effects gurus, editors, colorists and even a little bit about exhibition and distribution.  The only lacking area is the shift into digital distribution on the web and VOD, but that may be better left to a different documentary - one that isn't littered with so many Hollywood staples.

In the end, the film (can we even call these films anymore when they're not shot on that format) covers both sides evenly, including throwing in some of the newer generation of filmmakers who may never know what it is like to shoot on film. But they all do agree on one thing. There is limited time left on the film format.  It is just that no one knows when that day will come.  As Robert Rodriguez put it best, right now film may be above digital overall, but film can never be improved from its current state.  Year after year, new cameras are released and the technology improves, it is only time before digital surpasses the film format.

Side by Side is currently playing in Los Anggeles.  The film will open in New York City and additional cities next week and launches on VOD platforms on August 22nd.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Celeste and Jesse Forever

Beginning at the End                              
by Zac Sanford

Everyone has met a couple like Celeste and Jesse at some point in their life.  They're the pair that is lovey-dovey in public, never seems to fight, have jokes that are so inside that not even their closest friends get what the punchline is, and they are destined to be together forever.  Deep down, they're best friends at heart.

Problem is, while they're still BFFs for life, they've decided to call it quits six years into their marriage. Well, it wasn't completely mutual.  Celeste (Rashida Jones) has skyrocketed past her other half in all aspects of life.  She works in the world of trend spotting, has a book released on the subject and appears on the type of pop culture shows that populate E!.  Jesse (Andy Samberg) is content living in a small bungalow working on his art, that is, when he's not too busy rewatching DVR'd clips of the 2008 Summer Olympics.  She's ready to move on in life, yet he's content with his current place.

Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg

At the encouragement of some friends, Jesse decides to dive back into the dating game in Los Angeles.  He's reluctant at first, as he still harbors feelings for Celeste. But with her blessing, and her own pushing, he finally gets the nerve to ask someone out on a first date.  When Celeste finds out that the date has stayed over, as Jesse stays in the guest bungalow behind the house, she too must make the plunge.  While the dating lifestyle comes easy to Jesse, things are on the opposite side of the spectrum for Celeste.  In short, men are weird, and no one seems to ever come close to what she once had.

Samberg feels comfortable in a role that tears away the overly comedic style that he's used to in his weekly Saturday Night Live stint.  This is the perfect first step in his post-SNL career and will let him branch out from his current man-child roles.  But it is Jones who shines above all else.  Usually relegated to smaller roles in ensemble casts, the Parks and Recreation star radiates on-screen.  And since Hollywood seems to lack strong roles for smart females, it only makes sense that she co-wrote this script with fellow real-life friend, Will McCormmack, to give herself the opportunity to shine. 

In a world of cliched romantic comedies, Celeste and Jesse breaks the monotony that we've come to expect of Hollywood.  A lot of the tropes are still there, but the title might be misleading if you expect everything to be wrapped up neatly for all.  Lee Toland Krieger's direction feels like a love-letter to Los Angeles, and some of the inside jokes may be lost on those outside of the thirty-mile zone.

My only complaint is about the razor-thin supporting characters played by Elijah Wood, a gay coworker, and the pompous Lady Gaga-esque client to Celeste played by Emma Roberts.  Neither actor is given much to work with.  Instead they seem to pop in at the right moment to bring the laughter back into the mix.  Minus the small complaints, Celeste and Jesse Forever is a great alternative to the tired Hollywood formula.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Take this Waltz

Lead Us Not into Temptation                  
by Mark Dispenza

Sarah Polley is building a career out of making exceptional films based on the emotional trauma of ordinary people.

After a successful run as a film and television actress during the '80s and '90s, Polley left the profession to be a political activist, but returned to the industry as a writer-director during the past decade.  Her talents were much in evidence in Away from Her, for which she was Oscar-nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay.  The multiple award-winning feature showcased actress Julie Christie, winning her acclaim for her portrayal of a woman losing her past to the ravages of Alzheimer's.  As someone who has had to deal with that issue in my own family, I thought the film was the most insightful depiction of that all-too-common emotional trial that I have ever seen.

Polley's follow-up feature is a smart and sensitive portrayal of a marriage during that risky time when husbands and wives fall into familiar patterns and take the wants and needs of the other for granted.  As in many marriages the real cause of this one's demise is rooted in failures of communication and listening.

Michelle Williams is Margot, a young woman in a five-year marriage to Lou, played by Seth Rogen in a rare non-comedic role.  He is a loving husband who adores his wife but assumes he knows everything there is to know about her.  The tragedy is that Margot also loves Lou deeply, but he is not satisfying her growing desire for a more adventurous sex life, and he is oblivious to the signals she's giving him.

Margot's desire is ignited the day that Daniel (Luke Kirby) walks into her life.  Daniel is handsome, fit, and articulate about his attraction to Margot in a way that Lou is not.  Much of the film is centered around the push-pull relationship between Margot and Daniel.  She tries to resist his spell, but over time she allows her ability to control her impulses to deteriorate.  She knows she shouldn't go to that place if she wants to preserve her marriage, but she can't stay away from the flame.  She allows her desires to dictate her behavior.  Tragically, Margot will learn that important lesson: no matter where you go, there you are.

Michelle Williams

The thing that sets Williams apart as an actress and consummate professional is that she never "phones it in."  In Blue Valentine, for which she received a Best Actress nomination at the 2011 Oscars, Williams played a similar role as a young woman facing the imminent collapse of her marriage.  Yet there is absolutely no trace of that character here.

Williams has created someone completely new, with her own unique aspirations and shortcomings.  This is an entirely different woman, right down to her clothing and hairstyle.  If they weren't aware going in, I doubt that many who saw both films recognized the same actress in the lead role.    If you see Take this Waltz for no other reason, see it for Williams' performance.

Michelle Williams and Sarah Silverman

Take this Waltz is very much a character-driven film and a showcase of acting talent.  Polley uses actors who are best known as comedians and pulls performances from them that are career-defining.  Even more remarkable than Rogen, who has starred in several of the top-grossing comedies of recent years, is Sarah Silverman,  Her dramatic turn as Geraldine, Margot's best friend, must be seen to be believed.  Silverman is spot-on convincing as a woman who suffers from the demonic pull of alcoholism, putting her relationship with her loving husband and children at constant risk.

It will be a terrible oversight if Take this Waltz is not nominated for the top film awards this winter.  And if there are more similarly remarkable films from writer-directors like Polley, 2013 will be another "year of the woman," and thankfully, that phrase will begin to lose its meaning in Hollywood.